A city aflame: India’s coal rush

While intensified coal production has helped India’s economy to grow and its great metropolises to thrive, it has left one of the most mineral-rich regions in the country up in flames - literally.

Melanie Cura Daball
1 February 2016

Miners illegally break down and collect fresh coking coal from inside a BCCL state-run mine, November 2015. Melanie Cura Daball. All rights reserved.Jharia, at the heart of India’s largest coal belt, within the northeast state of Jharkand, sits on one of the world’s largest coal reserves. What would seem to be an economic blessing, however, has become a curse for the local workers and villagers of the Dhanbad district. While coal-burning power plants play a vital role in India’s endeavour to become a regional superpower, local villagers and workers are paying the price: forced to endure poisonous air, scorching heat and hazardous fires. 

Living on fire

On the outskirts of Jharia one of more than 70 large open fires burns at night billowing noxious fumes into the atmosphere, November 2015. Melanie Cura Daball. All rights reserved.Jharia’s vast opencast mines lie on top of underground fires that have been burning for over a century now. A shift from underground to opencast mining and dramatic lateral expansion have caused these flames to erupt into more than 70 open coal seam fires on the surface of the 110 square mile coalfields. Noxious gases have been fuming from fissures around houses which frequently collapse as the fires blaze their trails under the villages. Over the past three decades, Jharia’s once abundant woodlands have become a blighted landscape of contaminated soil, water and air. 

In the name of economic development, the prevailing greed for profit, vested interests and the hunger for power have also left the region — one of the most mineral-rich in the country— economically backward. While India’s metropolises like Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai reap benefits from the opencast mining in the Dhanbad district, “development” has further marginalised the local poor and deepened social inequality across the state.

India’s coal rush

Two young miners covered in coal dust at the end of a long shift at a BCCL state-run mine in one of Jharia’s loading points, November 2015. Melanie Cura Daball. All rights reserved.India, set to be one of the fastest developing and most populous countries in the world (likely to overtake China by 2022), heavily relies on prime coking coal —one of the world’s dirtiest fossils fuels — to stoke up its economy and lift its population out of poverty. At the moment coal burning power plants supply between 60 to 65 percent of India's energy.

With about 300 million Indians living without electricity, and faced with a desperate shortage of power to fuel its factories and produce electricity for its growing metropolises, the Indian government plans to double its state-run coal production by 2020. In order to reach this target, Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had announced earlier in 2015 that they intended to open one new mine per month.

While Prime Minister Modi widely advocates his energy policy, a closer look at the micro-level environmental and human repercussions reveals the dark underbelly of a lucrative, corrupt and dirty business at the expense of the local population.

The political economy of opencast mining

Some miners carry the collected coal to preparation points to later sell it in Jharia or Dhanbad, November 2015. Baskets of collected coal weigh up to 30kg each, with individuals making up to 50 transfers a day. Melanie Cura Daball. All rights reserved.First opened in 1896, Jharia’s underground coal mines were nationalised in 1973 and are now primarily operated by the state-run coal company Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL). In recent years, BCCL have opted for more profitable opencast mining, with cheaper extraction costs and higher output than deep mining. Most of the opencast mining by BCCL is largely deemed illegal, since in 97% of cases no licences have been granted.

The great majority of villagers of Jharkhand’s coal belt rely on mining as a primary source of revenue and livelihood. While hundreds of scavengers collect coal illegally to sell it in the nearby town of Dhanbad (making between $2-$5 per day), many locals work on a $2-a-day basis for one of the big companies, like BCCL, the TATA Group or the Dhansar Engineering Company (DECO). A corrupt system allows statesmen, local power brokers and businessmen  — referred to as the “Coal Mafia” — to take the lion’s share of profit from the coal industries and to exploit Dhanbad’s poorer, uneducated and un-unionised workers and residents without punishment. 

Local activists, like Ashok Agarwal from ‘Jharia Coalfield Bachao Samiti’ (Save Jharia Coalfield Committee), have gone even further, accusing BCCL of deliberately encouraging coal seam fires to spread for the purpose of lateral expansion. Instead of meeting their legal responsibilities and fulfilling earlier promises to fill previously mined vertical shafts with water and sand, the company is allegedly doing little to mitigate the fires. According to Agarwal, BCCL hopes for larger parts of Jharia’s lands to be qualified as ‘too dangerous for living’, justifying forced evictions of inhabitants and facilitating expanded opencast mining operations.

A new home?

A young resident plays between the poorly constructed buildings of Belgharia, November 2015. Melanie Cura Daball. All rights reserved.In order to boost its aggressive coal-driven development initiative, the Indian government has put a costly, large-scale resettlement project in place – the Jharia Action Plan (JAP) – to move residents of fire-affected areas to the purpose-built city of Belgharia, 8 miles away. Estimates by Reuters suggest the Indian government will spend $1 billion on its resettlement initiative to relocate roads, rail lines, and, above all, people.

The execution of this planned relocation to Belgharia and compensation for those being moved however, has been appalling. Due to delayed construction, as of today, only 3,200 of a proposed 70,000 families have been moved away from the edges of Jharia’s blazing coalfields. Buildings constructed only three years ago are already standing caked in coal dust, lack sewage management and have poor electricity infrastructure. Tiny rooms (sometimes shared by as many as 10 family members), insufficient or pending compensation, and few employment opportunities have left many residents like Ganesh Mal resentful. To survive, numerous villagers find themselves forced to make their way back to Jharia everyday to attempt working in the coal mines, either officially, or, more likely, as illegal scavengers. 

Staying behind

Sakhina Khetu explains how the JRDA is working with BCCL to supervise the eviction and resettlement process for villagers living too close to open coal seam fires, November 2015. Melanie Cura Daball. All rights reserved.For those who are waiting their turn to be relocated, or refuse to leave their homes, like Sakhina Khetu from Bokapahari on the outskirts of Jharia, the environmental pollution caused by Jharia’s open coal seam fires has had serious health impacts. Exposure to the poisonous gases (sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and mercury), steaming from fissures in the ground and swirling around the villages, has caused catastrophic damage to health.

According to two of Dhanbad’s local doctors, Dr S. K. Bhagania and Dr O. P. Agarwal, lung and skin diseases, cancer and stomach disorders are only some of the illnesses that the people in Jharia have to fight. Workers and villagers are predominantly affected by severe respiratory ailments such as tuberculosis, pneumoconiosis (coal worker’s ‘black lung’) and severe asthma. According to Dr O. P. Agarwal, life expectancy of Jharia’s inhabitants is cut short by at least 10 years.

Another major risk posed by Jharia’s open fires is that of the flames themselves. Maska is just one of several children who have suffered grievous injuries after coming into contact with coal seam fires while playing. The 12-year-old girl fell into one of the burning fissures on BCCL land, on September 17, 2015. Her right leg and left arm were severely burnt and amputated upon arrival to Dhanbad’s local hospital. Allegedly, BCCL — in theory liable for accidents on its minefields— disputes its responsibility and has refused to compensate the family or to provide any ‘goodwill’ financial gesture.

In fact, according to fellow villagers from Bokapahari, BCCL employees trespassed the family’s house and physically threatened Maskan’s father in response to his attempts to claim financial support for his daughter’s operation and recovery.

Maskan’s life prospects — dismal as they were already— have been further crushed as her disability drastically reduces her chances of being able to study in government schools, and later, get married.

The true cost of coal

A young villager of Laaltanganj stands in front of a large coal seam fire raging on Jharia’s outskirts, November 2015. Melanie Cura Daball. All rights reserved.The story of the local population at the heartland of India’s coal reserves casts a dark shadow on Modi’s aggressive development strategy. While intensified energy production may have helped India’s economy to grow and its great metropolis to thrive, it has also largely left those behind who should be at very core of these strategies.

Displaced, disempowered and struggling to find employment beyond the corrupt coal industry, Jharia’s residents have dreary prospects. The lives and struggles of the local villagers embody of the true human cost of India's vast, lucrative and expanding coal operations. 

Additional reporting contributed by Souvid Datta.



Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData